Schools like Churchill don't lose prestige
Parents and students at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, Md., are worried that a spectacular cheating scandal at the school will tarnish its A-plus reputation for excellence and getting students into the Ivy League. My colleague Jenna Johnson’s story on this, and other reports I have seen, suggest that Churchill’s ability to get students into good colleges is a bigger issue at the school than the moral lapses revealed by the news that some students hacked into the computer system and changed several dozen grades.
I plan to address the student cheating, at Churchill and elsewhere, in my Metro section column Monday. But the reputational worries are easy to dismiss. On that count, everybody should relax.
Experience and research show it is very hard to change a school’s reputation, whether it is good or bad. The national publicity about this incident will have no effect on the college prospects of any students not under investigation. The eight being looked at (three have withdrawn from school and five have been suspended) probably won’t suffer much either.
If you ask college admissions officers how well they know the high schools from which their students apply, they will often say they keep close track of them to help make the best possible decisions at admission time. In a few cases, they will be telling the truth. Some of the most selective colleges pay admissions officers well enough to persuade them to stay for decades and accumulate deep understanding of hundreds of schools.
But most colleges don’t have those kinds of resources, and rely on the widespread (and usually accurate) assumption that the fewer low-income students a high school has, the better it prepares students for college. Only 2 percent of Churchill students are from impoverished families, as measured by the federal school lunch subsidy program, so it is by definition in the innermost circle of high-prestige schools.
Those few admissions officers who know Churchill from personal visits and research also will discount the scandal because they know it has not affected the quality of the teaching, and they have no legal right to use the scandal in judging a student who hasn't been convicted of something.
Average family income also determines the reputation of a high school in the community at large. I read a research report several years ago (which I have unfortunately been unable to locate) that showed that even sharp drops in taxpayer support for a school did little to its reputation for years afterwards. This was a prime issue in Westchester County, N.Y., where I used to live. In that area, and others like it, school districts are small, often with just one high school, and school budgets are on local ballots every year. Activists (often seniors without students at home, like me) would sometimes try to urge no votes on those budgets, and pro-school people would argue that that would kill the school’s reputation.
But it wasn’t true. Some very good schools did lose budget votes, but their prestige did not suffer in any measurable way.
The only change that has a chance of altering a school's reputation is an influx of low-income families. If you check the prices in the real estate ads for Potomac, you will see that that is not likely to happen any time soon.
Read Jay's blog every day at http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.
| March 9, 2010; 2:02 PM ET
Categories: Jay on the Web | Tags: Churchill High School cheating scandal, Churchill reputation is safe, family incomes define school prestige, reputations rarely change
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